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Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla [Photo by Benjamin Ealovega]
01 Dec 2016

The new Queen of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Here is one of the next new great conductors. That’s a bold statement, but even the L.A. Times agrees: Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s appointment “is the biggest news in the conducting world.” But Ms. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla will be getting a lot of weight on her shoulders.

The new Queen of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

A review by David Pinedo

Above: Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla [Photo by Benjamin Ealovega]

 

After her grace and intelligent allure tonight, I expect her to inspire lots of women. She has taken over the reigns at CBSO, a terrific orchestra that the London orchestras unfairly overshadow. In preparation for her concert performance of Idomeneo with an all star cast next Summer, I wanted to find out what she could do with Haydn and Mahler at her official Welcome Concert. She did not disappoint!

Ms Gražinytė-Tyla certainly proves herself already to have great synergy with her new orchestra. She carries a modest, but confident air, and inspires her orchestra with her ferocious passion honed by an utterly refined elegance. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla proved herself a sensational conductor superlatively fit to follow in the legendary footsteps of Andris Nelsons, Sakari Oramo, and Simon Rattle. One can only imagine how this collaboration will grow over time.

As new Music Director, she had her first official concert in Birmingham. After I experienced Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s performance with Chamber Orchestra of Europe in Lucerne, she had dazzled me, and I needed to hear more. There, she made Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony come to life with a freshness and contagious energy with which she similarly infused Haydn’s ‘Le Matin’ Symphony tonight. Unlike some other female conductors she does not butch up her act. Her free-flowing authentic musicianship emerges from her feminine grace, not some imitation of a man conducting. Her mannerisms remind me of Barbara Hannigan, but without any provocative presentation.

The evening opened with the U.K. premiere of Raminta Šerkšnytė’s Fires. At the Lucerne concert, Ms. Gražinytė-Tyla introduced the audiences there to De Profundis, A haunting piece that excited me for more by this Lithuanian composer. Fires makes part of a series of pieces that tackle the forces of nature (Iceberg Symphony, Mountains in the Mist, Glow).

In continuous harmony, several different motifs fluctuate through rhythms, various densities of textures, and an assortment of timbres. On a slow burning, thick texture of strings, Fires contains rhythms from some remarkable percussive piano playing by James Keefe moving back and forth between a celesta. Slowly intensifying, rarified strings overlap in different clusters to create a luscious, breathing mass. I quite enjoyed it.

Gražinytė-Tyla conducted Haydn’s Symphony No. 6 in D major in her black, sleeveless pant suit without baton. Her directions flowed from her fingertips with the elegant determination and gestures of a ballerina. She was delightful to behold. Pleasure visible on her face, she controls the orchestra but does not constrict her musicians. You could see they were dedicated to play for her at their best. Truly a terrific orchestra characterized by its joie de vivre, communal spirit in play, deep musicianship, and altogether fiery passion.

The reduced set-up of strings and standing wind soloists made for an intimate collaboration. In particular the concertmaster Frank Stadler made his violin sing during his moving solos. Solo flautist Marie-Christine Zupancic even managed to get some loud laughter from the audience during the comical moments with her bird calls as well as in the finale Allegro.

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is one of the best in Great Britain. Perhaps the best, if the London organisations weren’t as high profile. I have heard the LSO with Gergiev, the LPO with Eschenbach and Ticciati, but to me they were nothing compared to what I heard in Birmingham.

The CBSO reminds me of how in the Netherlands, the Rotterdam Philharmonic under its PC Yannick Nézet-Séguin has to deal with the historical esteem for the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Over the past few years that orchestra often performed more memorable concerts with more intensity than the RCO, but don’t mention this to anyone in Amsterdam.

The meat of the evening came with a vibrant rendition of Mahler’s First Symphony. Transparency elucidated the layers of each section in the first movement while our conductor sustained a titanium tension that became the backbone of Mahler’s “Creation of Earth”. She ruled with a baton this time, highlighting the shrill contrast from the horns within the warmer textures, resulting in goosebumps galore.

In the Scherzo her expressive gestures took control. With her talent for cohesion of all sections, she creates a communal spirit producing an enormous momentum. She energised Mahler’s Ländler, to which she could not resist some charmingly joyful jumps and hip swaying. Something she would take to another level during the stormy finale.

Mahler’s take on “Frères Jacques” proved our conductor could also deliver pianissimo passages. She injected them with a delicate, taut suspense. After this, she immediately launched into the final movement. She conducted with all the nuances one hopes to hear in this furious ending. The audience ended with a wild ovation. I was surprised at how the British lost their composure to such a jubilant degree.

Still recovering from the shock of the American election loss and seriously disheartened by Ms. Clinton’s failure to win, I felt highly inspired by Ms. Gražinytė-Tyla. This woman is successfully breaking through barriers by redefining conducting in her own way, without breaking from tradition. She takes the stuffy masculinity expected in conducting, dispenses of it, and replaces it with her own intelligence and freshness.

“Let’s be proud together of this incredible orchestra,” Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla encouraged the Birmingham audience, before the encore of a Lithuanian piece ended the evening. She spoke with conviction and seemed completely at home in her new position with the CBSO. Beyond her musical talent, she presents a positive role model for women in our discombobulating world. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla truly is a beacon of hope.

If you are in England. Go visit Birmingham. It’s only an hour north of London. Just as diverse, but far less sprawling. On June 24, she will conduct Mozart’s Idomeneo. It will surely be a high point in this musical season.

David Pinedo

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